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"I can go to Disney and be a director, or I can stay here and make history"

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"I can go to Disney and be a director, or I can stay here and make history"

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"It was 20 years ago today ..."

Well, it was tomorrow actually. August 2, 1988 to be precise. That was the date when an incomplete version of "Tin Toy" first screened at SIGGRAPH and truly wowed the crowd in Atlanta.

Given the overwhelmingly positive response that this John Lasseter film received (Not to mention the numerous accolades that were heaped on this CG cartoon. Including that year's Academy Award for Best Animated Short) ... Well, "Tin Toy" really opened the door for Pixar. This one short seriously raised that animation studio's profile. Made the entertainment community sit up and take notice.

So in honor of this auspicious occasion in animation history, David A. Price -- the author of "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company" (Knopf, May 2008) -- has graciously allowed JHM to reprint the portion of his best selling book which details the creation of "Tin Toy." Which -- as you will read -- was a pretty tense time for Lasseter & Co.

Copyright 2008 Knopf. All Rights Reserved

On repeated occasions in the late 1980's, (Ed) Catmull barely dissuaded (Steve) Jobs from shutting down the animation division. Jobs's doubts were understandable; Pixar was reliably losing money every year and he was supporting the company through a line of credit with his personal guarantee.

One of those occasions came after the release of Red's Dream in 1987. When Catmull told Jobs that he planned for Pixar to prepare another short film, a skeptical Jobs came to Lasseter's office to hear the story. With Catmull and the animation group in attendance, the storyboards pinned on his wall, Lasseter went through the storyboard drawings and acted out the shots -- much as story men had done on the Disney lot for decades. The stakes here, however, were higher. "We knew that he wasn't just pitching for the film, he was pitching for the survival of the group," said Ralph Guggenheim, who was managing the animation unit.

Tin Toy had much the same inspiration as Luxo Jr., namely, Lasseter's observations of a friend's baby. This time, he opted for a far more ambitious tack, attempting to mimic a human baby in its appearance, the herky-jerky movements of its arms, its fickle moods. The story was told from the viewpoint of a toy one-man-band, known within the production team as Tinny, who finds the baby charming at first and then frightening.

The baby proved to be very difficult to model and animate; "it just became an incredible burden," remembered Flip Phillips, a new member of the team at the time. In early attempts at a model of the baby's head, he appeared to have the face of a middle-aged man. The final version of the baby (known to the team as Billy) had a much-improved face, but his skin had the look of plastic. When he moved, moreover, his body lacked the natural give of baby fat and his diaper had the solidity of cement--compromises made necessary by lack of time and the still-developing technology.

Copyright 1988 Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Lasseter and his technical directors slept under their desks at times to get Tin Toy finished before SIGGRAPH in August 1988, but to no avail. What the SIGGRAPH audience saw was only the first three-fifths or so of the film, ending at a cliff-hanger moment with Tinny running into his box and watching in horror through the box's cellophane window as Billy advances toward him. (A sharp-eyed viewer could spot a framed photo of non-digital origin on the living room coffee table -- a photo of a young John Lasseter winning the "best boy camper" award.) Even though the film wasn't complete, the audience of researchers and engineers was wowed by it.

At the same conference, Apple Computer showed a short film for which Lasseter's new wife, Nancy Tague, was artistic director and one of several animators. Tague, a 1986 Carnegie Mellon graduate with a bachelor's in computer science, worked as a computer graphics engineer for Apple; the two had met at an earlier SIGGRAPH conference. Pencil Test was a demonstration of color graphics on the Macintosh II computer, centering on a Macintosh II pencil icon that comes to life, jumps off the screen, and then finds it cannot get back when someone turns the computer off. A recent CalArts graduate named Andrew Stanton, a writer on the short-lived animated series Mighty Mouse, the New Adventures, helped Tague with the story. The film used no Pixar software -- Jobs's relationship with his former company was still adversarial -- but Lasseter gave advice on the animation.

Pixar did partner with another company in co-sponsoring the hit party of SIGGRAPH that year. As SIGGRAPH had grown, huge parties -- usually held by exhibiting companies -- had become a staple of the conferences. For its party, Pixar combined with Pacific Data Images, another small Bay Area firm, which specialized in logos for television networks, cable channels, and local stations as well as commercials. The leaders of the two companies were friends, as were many of their employees. Their event was pool-themed, held in a ballroom with beach décor, beach balls for the guests, and hosts and hostesses dressed as lifeguards; the party was nearly shut down as beach balls kept hitting the chandeliers.

Tin Toy went on to win the 1988 Academy Award for best animated short film, Pixar's first Oscar. With the award, Tin Toy went far to establish computer animation as a legitimate artistic medium outside of SIGGRAPH and the animation-festival film circuit. Robert Winquist, head of the character animation program at CalArts, predicted that computer animation was "going to take over in a short time." He publicly advised animators, "Put down your pencil and your paintbrush and do it another way."

Copyright 1988 Pixar. All Rights Reserved

The Academy Award also caught the attention of Lasseter's former employer, which made him a series of lucrative offers to come back as a director. For Lasseter, who was feeling squeezed financially as a married man with a stepson in elementary school and thoughts of more children to come, the offers presented a quandary. "I thought, 'Where am I going with this?'" he recalled. "I had won an Oscar for Tin Toy, but I could hardly afford to have a family, and Disney was dangling a huge amount of money in front of me."

Yet he had powerful reasons to stay. He felt reluctant to uproot his new family and move to Los Angeles. He enjoyed exceptional creative freedom in his films at Pixar, and his brain trust for making computer-animated films was based there. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Walt Disney Studios, had a reputation for being difficult and controlling. At Pixar, Lasseter had a comfortable chemistry with everyone he worked with, from Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith to his technical directors and production coordinators.

"Yeah, he could have made lots more money at Disney," remembered Pam Kerwin, then Pixar's vice president of marketing. "But these guys were motivated more by what they could do creatively than by how many dollars they made."

Lasseter turned Disney down. "We were aware they were trying to steal John away from us," Catmull said, "but John knew we had something important going on here. I remembered him saying, 'I can go to Disney and be a director, or I can stay here and make history.'"

Excerpted from "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company" by David A. Price.
Copyright © 2008 by David A. Price. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.

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  • There's a great quote from Ed Catmull in Leslie Iwerk's "The Pixar Story" documentary where Ed talks about all this ... I paraphrasing here but it's something along the lines of "John's going down for his third meeting as Disney tries to lure him back. He's got the choice of working for them or staying up here and working for this company bordering on bankruptcy. He decides to stay with this company bordering on bankruptcy."

    Actually there are a number of very successful filmmakers, producers and others who have left Hollywood for the Bay Area, including Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Pixar's directors, Chris Columbus, Clint Eastwood, Philip Kaufman, Walter Murch -- even Hitchcock had a certain affinity for region.

    You can find out more by getting ahold of a DVD copy of "Fog City Mavericks," a documentary about NorCal/Bay Area filmmakers. It's also aired on Starz.

  • Here's the direct quote from Ed Catmull:

    "John (Lasseter) is being asked for the third time to come down to be a director at Disney or he can stay up in Northern California with this company that's bordering on collapse because they're losing money. He stays up here with this company border on collapse."

  • I appreciate that this book points out that Steve Jobs wasn't the "visionary genius" that believed in Pixar from the beginning. That he actually tired to shut them down multiple times.

    Pixar is great NOT because of Steve Jobs, but because of Ed Catmull, John Lasseter and the rest of the creative and brilliant minds at Pixar.

  • Amen, Jedited.

  • Jedited,

    Steve Jobs trying to sell Pixar for every penny he had invested in it and trying to shut them down are very two different things. I've ordered the book from Amazon but haven't received or read it yet, so I don't know if Price documents any time where Jobs seriously threatened to pull the plug ...

    It would surprise me to learn that because I'm sure that a struggling Pixar (which as Jobs said, the smart ones look at what the company was doing and go look at that potential)  would have been more valuable than a shuttered, bankrupt company. Jobs is pretty damn smart on business matters.

    I know Jobs tried to sell Pixar a number of times, but the important part of the story is that he kept the company afloat after buying into Ed and John's dream to create the world's first CGI animated feature. It was a gamble, but the odds were on his side. That patience paid off in spades. He made a boatload of money with a wildly successful IPO and then a aircraft carrier load of money and Disney corporate clout with the deal he made with Bob Iger.

  • Actually... Jobs is kind of an idiot when it come to running a company.  Ever read the Apple Story?  

    What Steve Jobs excells at is selling the public on a really great idea and/or product.  It's sometimes refered to as marketing.  He is a visionary.  He's extremely creative and has a keen eye for equally creative employees.  But as far as being a corporate genius... not so much.  

    Seiously, go pick up a copy of The Apple Story.  Its a great read and should give the Pixar crowd some background on everyone's favorite iCEO.

  • I have a correction.  

    I actually pulled the book off my shelf to make sure of the title.  It's not the Apple Story.  It's Apple Confidential: The Real Story of Apple Computer by Owen W. Linzmayer.

  • Thanks Original 19 ... I'll add the title to my long list ...

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